Members Only | August 15, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Social media doesn’t just amplify conflict. It makes it

“Professional dividers” are dividing democracy for profit.


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In a recent piece for The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that social media platforms are destroying democracy. They allow people to sort themselves into homogenous tribes, he argues. 

Haidt says that they can spread disinformation more quickly. People could be attacked more easily. “It was as if the platforms had passed out a billion little dart guns, and although most users didn’t want to shoot anyone, three kinds of people began darting others with abandon: the far right, the far left and trolls,” he writes. 

We can’t wait for scholars to draw a definitive link between their actions and conflict in our society. By then, it may be too late, and our society will be the equivalent of a person with stage 4 lung cancer being told it was probably because of the cigarettes. 

Haidt, an NYU professor, has been constructing this narrative for several years. He is one of a growing cadre of scholars and writers who are concerned about the heightened polarization in the United States and what it might mean for our democracy. I am one of them.

Creating conflict
As are Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer. 

Kruse and Zelizer are professors of history at Princeton University. Their book Fault Lines also tackles America’s increasingly fractious society. The two historians take a broader sweep than Haidt does, arguing that America, since the 1970s, has become increasingly divided along political, economic, racial and sexual (gender) lines. 

For Kruse and Zelizer, social media’s role has been to amplify those divisions. Cable stations in the 1980s and the internet in the early 2000s were technologies that had promised to democratize and expand the public square. That may have happened, but these technologies, they say, also further fragmented the population.  

Kruse and Zelizer write that, “the fragmentation created a world with fewer points of commonality in terms of what people heard or saw, even as computing and cable technology emerged as the medium through which most people consumed their cultural goods.”

I find Haidt’s and Kruse and Zelizer’s arguments to be compelling. Both give plausible explanations for what many of us experience.

I’m more sympathetic to Haidt’s argument on social media, however. I think social media does more than amplify conflict. It creates it.

And there is a class of people, found disproportionately on the political right, who use it to exploit conflict for profit.

Professional dividers
“Grifter” is the trendy term for these folks. 

I prefer “professional dividers,” though.

A grifter can be an online dating coach, or a therapist promising to solve your problems for a fee. A professional divider’s express purpose is to sow division in the population, then monetize it. 

Think of Ben Shapiro. 

Matt Walsh. 

Steven Crowder. 

Candace Owens. 

They have huge social media platforms that they use to sow division. They and other professional dividers can be distinguished from professional good-faith commentators by the content they create.

  • They seek controversy. There is a hyper-focus on hot-button cultural issues or hot takes that will get clicks. As I write this, Matt Walsh has just published a video entitled “Ugly People On Reality Shows?” where he takes umbrage with what he calls the “woke mob” calling for body diversity on reality shows.
  • They demonize groups. Because professional dividers are primarily on the right, the people demonized will always be on the left. The target group’s actions will be interpreted in the worst possible way. This demonization also occurs through the spreading of misinformation or telling outright lies. Consider Candace Owen’s tweet stating that:

Seventy-nine percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are in minority neighborhoods. This is not by accident. That is by its founder, Margaret Sanger’s, eugenicist design. Go back and read her quotations. The Left sees racism everywhere except for where it actually is.

This is misinformation designed to fan the flames of controversy and paint the left as targeting Black people for abortions. Owens’ claims have been determined to be mostly false by Politifact. 

  • They are predictable. Professional dividers are attempting to grow an audience, and they need to feed that audience with consistent outrage material in the same political direction. Ben Shapiro called the intro to Michelle Obama’s new book “absolutely insipid.” It is impossible to imagine Shapiro producing a take other than this. Obama is a democrat and therefore cannot write a book worthy of reading.

Turning profits
These tactics separate professional dividers from the commentators in your newspaper or newsletter of choice. The presence of this highly lucrative profession is one of the main reasons why we are so polarized. Some people sow division and make money from it.

The paradigmatic example of this is mathematician turned massage therapist turned rightwing cultural critic James Lindsay. A holder of a doctorate in mathematics, Lindsay has leveraged a strange mix of academic critique, white grievance and conspiratorial thinking to build a large social media presence. 

Lindsay originally focused on demonizing academics and the academic disciplines (eg, queer studies, women’s studies, critical race theory or CRT) that catered to the experiences of minorities. 

He and fellow professional divider Christopher Rufo were at the forefront of spreading the lies and disinformation surrounding CRT. 

Lindsay has since moved on to other controversial topics. He has been credited with popularizing the false claim that LGBTQ people are “groomers” exploiting children sexually. Twitter has banned using the word groomer as an anti-LGBTQ slur. Lindsay’s repeated use of the word has led to his permanent suspension from Twitter. 

Another example is sportswriter Jason Whitlock

Whitlock, who is Black, has started a YouTube channel called “Fearless,” where he critiques leftist “woke” culture. His toxic mix is Christian nationalism with standard conservative anti-Blackness.

Consider his amazing explanation for why we didn’t have many Black quarterbacks in the NFL until recently. It wasn’t racism, he said. It was that Black boys didn’t learn to be leaders because so many grow up in “broken” homes without fathers. As a result, he said, they didn’t have the leadership skills necessary to be a good NFL quarterback. 

But technology – the vast array of devices used to record, analyze and communicate aspects of the game– has made it possible for coaches to manage the game from the sidelines. “The game has actually gotten easier for the quarterback,” he said, “and more responsibility has been put on the sidelines and the coaches.” 

Ah, I see. 

Coaches and coaching staff (all of whom, we can suppose, had fathers?) can use Wi-Fi connections to help the rudderless Black quarterback from a tragic single-parent home manage the game.  

This kind of outrageous take is tailor-made for controversy. It wasn’t racism that prevented Black athletes from playing the quarterback position. No, no. It was ackshully the Democrats and their welfare policies that put future Black quarterbacks in broken homes!  

If only we took action sooner
In his piece, Haidt drew parallels between social science research on social media today and research on smoking in the 20th century.

Cigarette makers could ward off calls for regulation because, although there was a preponderance of evidence that tobacco caused cancer, the link had not been conclusive. One can ask how many people died because the science was not settled.

Similarly, Facebook and other social media companies have claimed that the science is not settled on whether social media harms our democracy. Haidt advocates for taking action now, as there is a preponderance of evidence that social media harms democracy. 

I have the same sentiments about professional dividers. 

These people threaten our democracy by purposefully creating controversy, spreading lies and disinformation, demonizing fellow Americans, and sowing division for profit. 

As they are primarily on the right, they give fodder to bigoted elements within the Republican Party. Let’s keep using our free counterspeech to work on deplatforming these people. 

We can’t wait for scholars to draw a definitive link between their actions and conflict in our society. By then, it may be too late, and our society will be the equivalent of a person with stage 4 lung cancer being told it was probably because of the cigarettes. 

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at Follow him @roderickgraham.

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